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Policing during a pandemic, changes made amid COVID-19

By Ben Rodgers

BROWN COUNTY – Keeping communities safe is not an easy task in itself, but add a pandemic and law enforcement becomes an even more concerted effort.

“In law enforcement, most of our training revolves around tactical operations, more man-made threats as opposed to health and wellness,” said Captain Jody Lemmens with the Brown County Sheriff’s Office. “Obviously, we focus on officer wellness, but I don’t ever recall anything being taught about medical issues or general citizen health becoming a law enforcement issue.”

Lemmens said officers are trained to respond to situations where an individual’s mental health may come into play, like depression or suicidal tendencies.

But now, she said officers need to take their own physical health into consideration when responding to calls because of the pandemic.

“That’s something new to us,” Lemmens said. “It’s those kinds of more day-to-day tasks and duties that officers are doing where they have to retrain their brain.”

She said officers know there could be contact with bloodborne pathogens at a crash scene and putting on gloves before the investigation is second nature.

Now, officers wear cloth masks during their shifts, and if a call is likely to require more face-to-face interaction, medical-grade N95 respirator masks are used.

It’s also mandatory for officers in the department to respond to all calls with masks in place.

“When they know it’s going to be a higher risk to exposure, they’re required to have an N95 mask on, and we do have a process for getting those cleaned and disinfected,” Lemmens said.

She said the sheriff’s department has been fortunate to receive donations from the community, like inserts that give cloth masks more properties the N95 masks have.

To keep citizens safe, Lemmens said the department mindset has evolved to anyone could be infected with COVID-19, including officers.

“For the most part, we’ve minimized or tried to minimize our non-essential services,” Lemmens said. “We’re not doing any types of proactive community engagement things. All events are cancelled. Anything that’s not urgent and necessary we’ve kind of eliminated. We’re still out there doing proactive policing. We may have an elevated justification for a stop where we’re looking at the risk to ourselves and the vehicles we’re stopping.”

Brown County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Brad Brodbeck uses an electrostatic sprayer to disinfect a vehicle. The department has a backpack version and a handheld sprayer that are used to disinfect vehicles before and after all shifts. Ben Rodgers Photo

The sheriff’s office also has been loaned electrostatic sprayers from a local school district.

It looks like a weed-killer sprayer, but instead, it shoots a chemical mix made from concentrate that kills viruses, said Brad Brodbeck, chief deputy.

“As the mist comes and as it settles and clings to everything, what we’re told, is it cleans and kills the virus,” Brodbeck said.

The wait to get an electrostatic sprayer could stretch past August, he said, so the department is making the most of the loan by cleaning all squads after a shift ends and before a new one starts.

“A lot of the things that will be the new normal, a lot of people are asking why we haven’t done them in the past,” Brodbeck said. “It’s also something we should be using this time of year anyways.”

The Brown County Sheriff’s Office provides service for 13 townships and five villages, and serves approximately 115,000 people.

On the jail side, both said the sheriff’s office is in need of surgical gowns for jail staff during this pandemic.

Green Bay changes

Unlike Brown County, the Green Bay Police Department isn’t able to acquire any electrostatic sprayers yet, but it’s fortunate enough to have professional volunteers from PuroClean Property Restoration.

“Our mechanics are dedicated – they’ve put all their normal duties aside to clean and sanitize squad cars,” said Kevin Warych, department commander. “All squad cars are on a rotation, and we track when they are cleaned. PuroClean volunteered their services to come clean out squad cars for free, so our mechanics are working closely with them.”

The deep cleaning of squad cars before and after shifts comes back to the department’s main priority, Warych said.

“The priority is and will always be the health of the officers and the conditions that the officers work in,” he said. “Because if we don’t have police officers, we don’t have a department.”

Like Brown County, in Green Bay wearing a mask is mandatory for officers in the station or on a call.

“Safety glasses and gloves are strongly encouraged, but they’re also strongly encouraged to wear the N95 masks if they go into closed dwellings, small places, apartments, houses, things like that,” he said.

Before the pandemic hit, the Green Bay Police Department launched an initiative called Slow Down Green Bay to combat residents’ No. 1 concern – traffic.

However, in keeping with the priority of officer safety, the department has given officers discretion on enforcement.

“We are conducting traffic enforcement judiciously, and what I mean by that is we are still enforcing traffic, we are still making sure roads are safe, we are still holding people accountable, but that motor vehicle defect, that burnt-out taillight, that will be there next week, next month,” Warych said.

The Green Bay Police Department is also part of the larger Brown County Emergency Operations Center, which affects the mindset of keeping society together during a pandemic.

“This pandemic touches every single part of society, business, life, humanitarian efforts, everything,” Warych said. “All these people come around and they work together, share information and they provide the best information to service the county.”

He called it “the glue that keeps all of this together.”

“With the emergency operations center and emergency management, there are so many support functions that play a role in this,” Warych said.

Fortunately, he said the department is pretty well stocked with pandemic supplies for the immediate future, but is still in need of payers and support.

Rural policing

The Hobart-Lawrence Police Department covers an area that is a mix of rural with dense population areas.

“We have masks (including N95) and gloves and goggles available to officers whenever there is a need to use PPE to keep themselves safe when they’re going into certain situations or if it’s a call that dispatch is aware COVID-19 is for certain or a possibility,” said Randy Bani, department chief. “They notify the officers to use PPE cautions, and when officers hear that on a call, they know they need to mask up, glove up, be even more cautious than they are on the average, everyday call.”

Bani has not instituted a mandatory mask order for his department yet, but he said he closely follows recommendations from the Brown County Emergency Operations Center, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and health departments.

Still, he said officers approach the job differently than they did at the start of March.

“They certainly do approach things a lot differently,” Bani said. “The officers themselves don’t come in our building here unless they absolutely have to to drop off paperwork. They’re directed to stay in their mobile command post, meaning their squad car. They can do almost all their work from the squad car. They’re safest for themselves and the employees in the office if they can take care of work from their squad car.”

Overall calls for service are down in Hobart, just like the rest of Brown County and Green Bay, but Bani said that doesn’t mean his officer’s aren’t ready for whatever may come over the police scanner.

“We get every kind of call, whether we’re rural or a city, we get the same types of calls,” he said. “We are more rural, but this virus is so mobile that I don’t think it makes any difference if you’re in downtown Green Bay or out in the country. The virus can and does exist everywhere. It’s not like we’re out in the country so we can relax our thoughts on PPE and staying safe.”

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